By all accounts, farming has traveled an astonishingly long distance in a comparative short time—a remarkable journey and technological feat owed in no small part to Extension educators.
In colonial America, farmers toiled some 78 hours a week and were trapped in an unbreakable cycle of back-breaking drudgery. Growing in stature and strength required more food, but the physical limitations of farmers prevented them from growing it.
Beginning in the early 20th century, Extension educators helped show farmers how to produce a cheap, diverse and highly abundant food supply.
The advanced scientific farming methods that grew out of land-grant university research and that were disseminated to farmers by the growing legions of Extension educators broke the unbreakable cycle associated with older patterns of farming and changed the course of agriculture forever.
As Matt Ridley observes in his book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, one of the hallmarks of modern farming, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, staved off the deaths of millions from mass starvation as other nitrogen sources approached exhaustion.
Bodies grew larger and healthier. For example, the average American man in 1850 stood 5 feet and 7 inches, weighed only 146 pounds, and was expected to live to be only 45. By contrast, in 1980, the typical American man was 5 feet and ten inches, weighed 174 pounds, and was expected to live beyond 75. These statistics are among the many compiled by a study published in 2011 by a team of researchers led by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel titled “The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700.”
The strong Cooperative Extension emphasis on adopting farm mechanization — replacing draft animals with farm machinery — was another critical factor behind this dramatic farming transformation. Mechanization enabled farmers to transform millions of acres into productive cropland that had previously been tied up to feed draft animals.
The abundant and comparatively cheap food supply that many of us take for granted is one of the earliest and most tangible effects of Cooperative Extension work.
Yet, as Ridley also stresses in his book, this only scratches the surface. The improved yields that have accompanied the adoption of other modern farming practices also greatly reduced the demand for cropland.
For example, if the average yields of 1961 were still commonplace in 1998, an extra 7.9 billion acres of land would have been put to the plow – an area comparable to the entire continent of South America, minus Chile.
More strides have been made in recent years with the adoption of new techniques, such as precision farming, which have produced drastic reductions in herbicide, pesticide and use.
As renowned futurist Kevin Kelly stresses, the current agriculture model secured something every bit as valuable as cheap, abundant food: It also freed up time — precious time that has enabled human beings to do other things besides raising food — valuable things, which have contributed immensely to the quality of life on this planet.
The Road Ahead
What role did Extension play in these dramatic advances? This technological revolution would not have been possible without the working relationships Extension agents cultivated with the nation’s farmers.
In spite of all these colossal achievements, modern farming is beset with challenges. Even as farming transforms itself to feed an estimated 9.5 billion people by mid-century, growing numbers of people around the world are calling for a new farming model that requires fewer pesticides and herbicides, less soil disturbance and less reliance on nonrenewable energy resources,
Just as we did in the last century, Extension educators will be working hand in hand with farmers to build a new farming model that emphasizes both economic efficiency and environmental sustainability—a model, Ridley says, that not only will be fully equipped to feed an estimated 9 billion people comfortably but that also will achieve this using considerably less cropland, water, fuel, and chemicals.